The 12 elephants of the jobs apocalypse

From time to time, I am delighted to share the thoughts of others and their views on the future of work. Today I have a new contribution from my friend David Hunt. David's provided me with this widely and independently evidenced commentary on the real nature of recruitment in the US today as experienced by job seekers. 

Something is stirring in the jobs jungle... 

By David Hunt, PE

Photo: Khao Yai News Facebook page

Let’s cut to the chase.

On one hand, companies claim they can’t find skilled people for the positions they have open; they claim there’s a shortage.  Yet I see the same positions open for month after quarter – and in multiple instances still open after a year… an observation seconded by both job seekers and recruiters I know.  

Clearly something is preventing the “pulling of the hiring trigger.”  But the opportunity costs of unfilled positions are the ability to pursue new initiatives, develop new products and services, and handle new and existing customers.  Let us not forget the stress toll on employees working 60+ hours a week for months on end. 

On the other hand, we have – across America – untold millions… record numbers!... un-or-underemployed.  We have a labor force participation rate near record lows.  Networking groups, like local-to-Boston groups Acton Networkers and WIND, are overflowing with skilled, competent, accomplished, and educated people who are perfectly capable of stepping into new roles successfully.  As are, doubtless, such groups across the country. 

Clearly there is an enormous mismatch, a dissonance in the perception of reality between people seeking to fill jobs, and people wanting jobs.  Each side has their own points, but – to cite a Vorlon proverb – “Understanding is a three-edged sword; there’s your side, their side, and the truth.”

We need to talk, the two sides, candidly but without rancor, to burn away the irrelevancies until we are left with a pure product, the Truth.  Only then, when both sides are in agreement about the real nature of the problem, can solutions then be proposed and tried.  But the first step is to admit there is a problem.  And since employers indisputably have the power, let’s talk about them.

Multiple Elephants in the Recruiting Room

Elephant the First: Hiring managers do not believe they need to compromise on what they want from candidates.  Per a DeVry University survey (bolding added):

*Sixty-seven percent of hiring managers don’t feel like they have to settle for a candidate without the perfect qualifications for the job

As one hiring manager told me, “I want what I want, and will wait to get what I want.”  This desire for the fantasy date leads to a huge list of requirements, often impossible requirements, which feeds into:

Elephant the Second: ATS portals reject up to 75% of qualified candidates; e.g., from Applicant tracking systems – the hidden peril for job applicants (bolding in original):

Some sources quote that as many as 75% of applicants are eliminated by ATS systems, as soon as they submit their resume, despite being qualified for the job!

Paraphrasing Suzanne Lucas, “The Evil HR Lady”, when the impossible is set as the filtering criteria, it shouldn’t surprise that only the impossible – i.e., nothing – comes through.  Reinforcing this is another data point, specifically an interview with Wharton School Professor Peter Cappelli whose research focuses on employment (bolding added):

*One employer told me that 25,000 people had applied for a reasonably standard engineering job in their company and that the hiring systems indicated that none met the requirements.

And a recruiter I know told me that, as a test, a company put together what they considered to be a perfect resume.  Yup.  Didn’t get through the ATS.  As Careerealism’s J.T. O’Donnell observed, ATS portals are where applications go to die.

Elephant the Third: My own experience with trying to network into companies indicates that more and more companies are blocking the networking that hitherto has been one of the best ways of making contacts with decision makers.  For example:

*I … made contact with the hiring manager on LinkedIn. Despite having made contact through a mutual connection and (theoretically) a trusted source, they said they could not communicate directly with me, and that HR would have to pass my resume to them before they could do anything. (Nor could they request my resume even knowing I was in the system.)

Another company I know has, per multiple people I know working there, outright forbidden any networking contacts with hiring managers.  Even current employees can only bid for new positions through the ATS.

Elephant the Fourth: Terrified of making a (cue dramatic music) BAD HIRE, companies have signed up to conduct personality testing to determine fit to some idealized personality profile, despite many potential downsides, e.g., The Problem with Using Personality Tests for Hiring and The Lazlo Emergency Commission Report.  And it’s become a responsibility dodge:

When there's a test to fall back on, managers inevitably step back from responsibility and surrender to the test, instead of asking the tougher questions. Like "the claw" in Toy Story, the test "decides who will stay and who will go."

A personality test will never encourage your managers to have the kinds of flexible thinking you need, because the test makes the ultimate decision. No test will save you from the hard work of developing an intelligent hiring process. It takes effort to distinguish the drivers for performance in a job, and real thought to understand who will fit into your culture.

Elephant the Fifth: There is no pushback on the ability of hiring managers to play Goldilocks to wait forever, and no difficult conversations had with those hiring managers by their superiors about their Quest for the Purple Squirrel.  For example, blogger Aline Kaplan had a critical observation in her blogpost Hiring the Perfect Candidate: The Problem with Finding Goldilocks:

Had I ever taken this long to fill a position … my managerial competence would have come into question. I would have had to provide a very good reason why I could not find one decent candidate among the horde of technology marketing people let go by numerous companies when the Great Recession hit—and beyond.

Hidden in this lack of correction to such levels of indecision is an implicit message from upper management that indecision is tolerated.  That tacit approval of indecision in hiring will leak to other topics also needing decisions.

Elephant the Sixth: Despite the fact that the economy has sucked canal water since 2008, with – as mentioned above – untold millions (by some estimates over 100 million) not counted in the American labor force any more, there is still a perceptual bias against those who are unemployed, especially those who have been out for longer than six months.  Thus, I observe a lack of empathy or “EQ” for such people based on no allowances made for the current economic reality.

Elephant the Seventh: Something like 80% of companies search for candidates on social media and the internet, with no guidelines or standards.  Thus, any post – whether on LinkedIn, Facebook, twitter, or anything found with a google search – can potentially be viewed as disqualifying.  Now, companies are also scouring posts by people with whom you are connected, and searching for your image to see if you are in others’ pictures.  Yet on the flip side, having no social media presence is also seen as disqualifying, thus creating a social media presence is a Catch-22.

Elephant the Eighth: The only shortage is of people willing to take pennies on the dollar (and in parallel, a dearth of training dollars to fill in small gaps).  They keep looking for, quoting J.T. O’Donnell, “Bi-lingual brain surgeons for $10 an hour”.  Ask The Headhunter Nick Corcodilos wrote  – read the whole link, it’s really eye-opening:

"The McQuaig Institute (a developer of talent assessment tools) recently polled over 600 HR professionals. The #1 reason they lose job candidates — reported by 48% of U.S. companies — is because the offers they make are too low.

HR knows where the talent shortage comes from: Lousy job offers."

Elephant the Ninth: A standard complaint by job seekers is the treatment they receive.  This is not the carping of “angry job seekers” but observations by multiple “big names” in hiring and recruiting.  Job seekers talk and share stories, leading to companies getting bad reputations.  (And in parallel, sweatshop 12-plus-hour-days companies gain bad reps.)

Elephant the Tenth: Ageism and the parallel fear of hiring someone who is a threat to the hiring manager’s position.  There are a lot of very experienced, accomplished, and savvy people looking for work.  Given the youth-philia of industry these days, I opine that many younger managers are not just concerned about having to manage someone older than they are, but are worried that those seasoned people might become their replacements, or even superiors.

Elephant the Eleventh: Companies have invested untold millions in ATS software, personality testing, etc.  Nobody wants to report upward that the software they’ve pushed, the policies they recommended, may in fact be creating the very shortage they decry.  Yet… sooner or later, as the inability to fill positions noticeably affects the bottom line, company leaders will turn their eye to the situation.  CYA maneuvering only works for so long, and doesn’t generally end well for those who hid bad news.

Elephant the Dozenth: Interviewers have certain expectations of behaviors and personality types. In Fuzzy Limits, I outlined this situation related by a recruiter:

They described a person they were attempting to place at a company. Their client rejected the candidate, citing that the person came across as "too aggressive". Upon being told that feedback, the candidate altered their presentation to be more low-key… and was rejected at their next interview as "not dynamic enough".

One person's confident is another's arrogant; humble vs. uncertain, low-key vs. disinterested, enthusiastic vs. desperate, delegator vs. slacker? And so on.

For example, I tend to think before I speak. After one interview I got the feedback that they thought my "engaging brain before putting mouth into gear" made me look slow and indecisive. Had I known that, I would have adjusted. But since interviewers don't come with meters above their heads so we can get instant feedback on how our presentation is perceived by a total stranger, applicants are forced to gamble.

All these elephants lead to one inescapable conclusion – echoing a comment you will hear in almost any networking group meeting and often online in comments on LinkedIn essays: “The hiring process is broken”.

Destroying the Message

Across the board, corporate decision makers ignore the chorus of such observations, and even excoriate and label as “uppity” those who point out these elephants.  I suspect this tendency is an application of The Emperor’s New Clothes.  It’s one thing when a “job search / recruitment expert” points things out.  It’s another when a hoi polloi plebe points these things out – because then the elephants might actually have to be addressed as they’re visible to all. 

But problems don’t get better because they’re ignored.

So What Will We Talk About?

In 2002 my retired Harvard Business School professor father passed away suddenly at age 93.  Needless to say my mother was shattered.  Eventually she climbed out of her hole and resumed life, though not unchanged.  We talked daily; I also was going through multiple and simultaneous life crises.

My mother was the first woman to get – by a few months – a Doctorate of Business Administration from the Harvard Business School.  Incredibly intelligent, highly insightful, and scarily intuitive, she would grill me wanting to know what was going on in the life of her only child in the hopes of guiding me to constructive actions.  I would sometimes be forthcoming but, more often, attempt to evade the conversation through various tactics.  She would have none of it, and would scornfully deride my evasions of serious issues with “So, we’ll just talk about the weather.”

So What Are We?

Let me be absolutely, completely, blunt in asking this – because people interested in solving problems ask penetrating questions and brush aside evasions just like my mother did…

Are we a nation of problem-solvers, rolling up our sleeves and willing to discuss the elephants in the HR lounge candidly?  People are suffering from lack of work, and companies are losing from all the opportunity costs of unfilled openings.

Or… are we a nation of shirkers, avoiding talking about these difficult issues because they make us uncomfortable, are brought up by the “wrong people”, or might necessitate that companies admit “The Shortage” might be because of the decisions and policies and programs they themselves have made and enacted?


Sigh.  Yeah, I thought so.

It’s been a surprisingly cool spring and summer here, very possibly because the sun’s gone quiet.  How are things where you are?

David Hunt is a Mechanical Design Engineer in southern New Hampshire looking for his "next opportunity" that allows him to design new products and shepherd them to stable production. His LinkedIn profile is:; he blogs at and tweets at @davidhuntpe.

© 2016, David Hunt, PE


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